Train for Your First Ultramarathon: Sally McRae’s Top 5 Tips

Professional trail runner and COROS athlete Sally McRae recently finished the Cocodona 250 in 87 hours, 48 minutes, and 49 seconds. Her VERTIX 2 lasted her the entire race, with 15% battery left to spare.

While Cocodona 250 was Sally’s first race above 200 miles, she’s no stranger to the ultramarathon world. Sally has been competing since 2010 in some of the most prestigious ultras, including the Western States 100, UTMB Mont-Blanc, and Badwater 135, which she won in 2021. Sally was one of the first COROS athletes, joining our team back in 2017. It’s been exciting to see Sally’s journey as she tackles new races and even longer distances. Sally will be competing in some more 200+ mile races this year, including the Tahoe 200, Bigfoot 200, and Moab 240. 

Looking for how to train for an ultramarathon? Check out Sally’s tips based on her years of experience as a pro trail runner.

1. First, Believe You Can Do It. And Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.

It may seem simple, but Sally says before you can do something physically, your mind has to believe it first.

Growing up, Sally played soccer and never imagined running more than 6 miles. Although she was an athlete, even the idea of running a marathon seemed daunting. However, as she gradually opened herself up to long distance running as a way to explore her surroundings, she fell in love with the trail community and the opportunities it provided. 

 “Overall, humans are very capable. If you set your mind to something, you can do anything that you train for,” Sally explains. “Doing an ultra is more about the mind than the physical,” she says. “It’s all about mindset. When you commit to training, you’ll be far more capable than you ever knew.”

2. Be A Student Of The Sport.

With ultrarunning, there are a ton of variables. You’re experimenting with fueling, hydration, running gear, and race logistics. You’re constantly adjusting to changes in your environment, including the weather, sunlight, and course elevation. Thankfully, you don’t have to go into an ultra race blindly.

Sally says her confidence comes from a deep knowledge of the sport and knowing what works for her body and her training. This knowledge comes from pure research–listening to podcasts, watching Youtube, reading articles online–and being intentional about learning. “When you have knowledge and you stand at that start line, it turns into confidence. You just know what to do. You’ve packed food, electrolytes, you know you’re going to hit a low point in the race. You anticipate it, you don’t fear it, so you’re prepared.”

When preparing for Cocodona, Sally says it was all about being a student of the sport. She paid attention to the podium finishers and their lifestyle habits–what they ate, how much they slept, what kind of FKTs they’d run before, and how efficient they were on trails. Leading up to Cocodona, Sally launched a YouTube series documenting her training and experimentation.

“Really seek out those that have gone before, and have put the work in, and are sharing that content. Because you’re going to learn a lot. And I think it’s going to make you feel better about doing it.”

3. To Start, Focus On Building Strength And Increasing Time On Feet.

When training for a road race like a 5k or marathon, a coach will typically recommend weekly mileage goals. With ultramarathons, however, Sally says mileage is important, but it’s not everything. If your goal is to run your first ultramarathon, focus on building strength in the gym and increasing time spent on your feet, whether you’re running or doing a through-hike on the trails. You can mix it up on your runs with different terrain and elevation.

When training or racing, Sally says having a navigation tool like COROS while you’re doing 4 or 5 hour runs is crucial. “When racing, having a course map is vital,” she explains. “I can’t express this enough because if you didn’t have the map, then you were likely going to make a mistake. I loved that I could always see how close I was to the next aid station and it alerted me immediately if I ever went off course.”

The Cocodona 250 course elevation profile, according to Sally’s VERTIX 2 race data. Sally downloaded the course GPX file to her watch, so she had turn-by-turn navigation to guide her along, map out aid station stops, and stay on course.

In addition to COROS navigation, you can also monitor Effort Pace on your watch, which gives you a grade adjusted pace based on elevation profile. As you focus more on “time on feet” versus mileage or exact pace, Effort Pace can help you determine just how hard you’re working and how it translates to your training.

4. Eat More, Sleep More.

It’s easy to underestimate just how much your body needs to fuel, and how much rest you need to recover. Sally even admits recovery is hard for her as a naturally high-energy person. 

“Sleep has become so important to me, and I kind of learned my lesson earlier in my career. I spent well over a decade on three or four hours of sleep, but once I started to implement a true nighttime and recovery routine, I was able to train better.”

“That’s been a great tool for me, because I’m still learning in that area. My goal, as I got closer to Cocodona, I wanted my [COROS] sleep graph to be increasing. So every night I’d check the chart–January, February, March, April–and make sure that I was getting better sleep.”

As for fueling, Sally says you need to eat much more than you’re used to. In fact, you might even put on a few pounds as you taper before race day, knowing that you might shed some weight during the course of the race. Because your body is operating primarily in the fat burn and aerobic zones when running an ultra, it’s important to fuel with plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates throughout the race.

Sally’s Cocodona 250 race data shows she was operating mostly in the fat burn and aerobic heart rate zones.

5. Proceed With Grace.

Running ultramarathons requires a lot of patience, and a lot of trial and error. No one gets it right the first time around. “You’re going to have days where it doesn’t feel good. And you might have that first race, and it might turn into a DNF,” says Sally. “I’ve had a lot of failures in my career. But not being afraid of those failures, knowing that I don’t define myself by those failures, are opportunities to get better and grow.”

Nevertheless, some of Sally’s best races have come after total failures, which she used as a learning opportunity to get better. “Have grace with yourself and start again. You have a chance to start again every day, and the only way you accomplish anything is by not giving up.”

Sally wears the COROS VERTIX 2, which lasts even her longest races like Cocodona and helps her navigate even the most complicated courses.  If you’re training for your first ultramarathon, check out our ultramarathon training plan. To learn more about Sally, you can follow her training and racing via Instagram @yellowrunner, or subscribe to her YouTube channel.

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